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T’internet, lovely ladies, and know-it-all husbands

A conversation with Mrs S this morning brought to mind this post from a few years ago…

Right. eBay. It’s a blessing and a burden ain’t it? Availability of lots of items at bargain prices, rare stuff, bits and bobs you can’t get anywhere else, usually for good reason. And a helluva lot of old tat. Now, I’ve bought and sold a fair bit of stuff through eBay in my time: guitar gear, computer equipment, CDs. Usually, it’s relatively plain sailing. But there can be problems. Oh yes.

Last week, for example, my wife bought some Very Special Ladies’ Eye Stuff, which is highly expensive in the shops. She tells me that it’s usually about £30.00 for one thumbnail-sized pot, but this eBay bargain, dear reader, was just £9.99 for three thumbnail-sized pots.

Coo.

My missus was very pleased with this bargain. However, when the tiny tubs of Very Special Ladies’ Eye Stuff arrived, two of the pots contained a brown wax-like substance which looked neither special nor suitable for application to Very Special Ladies’ eyes. Rather Toxic rather than Very Special would probably be a fair assessment. The third pot contained a creamy white substance that looked considerably more as expected (although she says it still isn’t quite right).

I contacted the seller not expecting very much, but the two Rather Toxic pots were replaced with Very Special ones without question and, lo, my wife was happy again.

That was not the end, however. She’d also tried to buy some Lovely Créme for Ladies’ Faces, but hadn’t had much luck in finding the right stuff: there was Gentle Créme for Sleeping Ladies, Mild Créme for Ladies with Delicate Skin, Mild Créme for Lovely Ladies, and numerous other crémes, sérums and other things with “é” in them, but very few listings for Lovely Créme for Ladies’ Faces, which was what she particularly wanted.

I stepped boldly in, as know-it-all husbands the world over are wont to do. I promptly sought out, bid on and won on her behalf some Lovely Créme for Ladies’ Faces, at a price which, she tells me, is about a third of the shop price. It was the right stuff, the right size, the right box, the right price, the works. It arrived yesterday.

Or did it?

When I showed my wife the packet, her Lovely Lady’s Face dropped: instead of Lovely Créme for Ladies’ Faces, I’ve been sent some kind of Super Sérum! Rather than a Super Sérum, this is actually an Absolute Bugger for several reasons:

  • My wife is disappointed;
  • I look like a prize chump (even though I DID buy the right stuff – we checked);
  • It means I’ve got to contact the seller and faff around with an exchange.

So, what’s the point of telling you all this? Well, I’m not entirely sure, but I suppose for myself I should learn to mind my own business and stay out of my wife’s transactions (LOL, snicker, etc). As far as you’re concerned, make sure you exercise caution when buying products with “é” in them via t’internet, especially if you are the know-it-all husband of a Lovely Lady.

Home Front – season 1

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Today saw the final episode of season one of Home Front (see previous post). The series has been fantastic – I haven’t missed an episode – and a triumph of storytelling. The writing is of a supremely high quality, and it’s hard to believe each episode crams so much in to just 12 minutes. Even the lines that could slip by unnoticed are often absolute gems, and there’s a wonderful thread of humour that runs concurrent to the fear and grief.

She’s brilliant at following people
Adam Wilson tries to persuade Rev. Winwood to let Jessie into the Boy Scouts

Every acting performance is exemplary. Obvious examples include the forthright conversations Adam has with Reverend Winwood or Jessie; Dorothea’s confrontation with said reverend – her husband – regarding his relationship with Isabel Graham; Gabriel Graham’s gradual unravelling; the just-about-keeping-it-together tension of Alice Macknade; the down-to-Earth, no nonsense bobbying of Sergeant Harris.

Every time you kiss me someone seems to die
Isabel Graham ties herself in knots

We still don’t know what’s happened to the two missing boys, Jimmy and Sam. I have my suspicions – and to be honest I’d expected to find out by the end of season one – but I guess we’ll just have to wait. (Interesting to note that missing children crop up a lot in Katie Hims’ writing.) And in today’s episode missing Dieter’s written to Kitty, who only yesterday wed Victor in a marriage of mutual convenience! I honestly hadn’t expected to feel so strongly, but I love this programme. If you’ve missed any episodes, every one is available on iPlayer.

Now Home Front is off-air until December 1st, I’m looking forward to Tommies, – a new drama about British soldiers serving on the front in World War One. Tommies is scheduled for broadcast in Radio 4’s Afternoon Drama slot at 14:15 weekly from October 7th.

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Home Front – WW1 drama from the BBC

This is a brief follow-up to my previous post about my enthusiasm for BBC radio drama, having recently visited the BBC studios at the Mailbox in Birmingham to sit in on a recording session of the BBC’s epic new World War One series, Home Front. This was followed on 31 July by the series’ launch at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

I was invited in to the studio by Home Front Editor Jessica Dromgoole. Director for the day was Lucy Collingwood, and the Studio Manager Martha Littlehailes. Overall, I was struck by how the team worked together. This was a swift, smooth operation. No one even appeared slightly stressed. The way the team identified problems with the script or recording and tackled them was fascinating. Every scene improved slightly with each take – no scene requiring more than three – with tweaks to scripts and delivery made on the fly. Having said all that I did see people run on a couple of occasions; although rather than “bloody hell the train’s about to leave!” running it was more “hey look, there’s an ice cream van!” running.

A highlight of my visit was meeting playwright Katie Hims, writer of the episodes being recorded on the day. You’ll know from my previous post that the Hims/Dromgoole partnership has resulted in some of the radio plays I’ve enjoyed most, so seeing Hims in action amending her script and picking up tips direct from a writer whose work I’ve admired for so long was a real privilege.

The actors’ performances were remarkable, and I was pleased to meet Katie Angelou, who played Queenie in Hims’ award-winning Lost Property trilogy. I was even called upon to make a contribution myself! A congregation was required to give authenticity to a church scene. Studio Manager Martha was keen to use real people rather than an atmosphere from the sound library, so everyone available was whisked into the studio where a church was hastily constructed. I feel I played my role with great warmth and depth. Amen.

The series’ launch was a fabulous event held at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, attended by crew, cast, writers, BBC representatives and Birmingham’s Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress, no less. Those attending were given a preview of the first two episodes of Home Front followed by a Q&A session with some of those involved in the series’ production, during which we gained insight into the process of research and how the commission came to be.

Writing is something of a psychotic episode: there are people in our head; we watch what they do and listen to what they say and write it all down. Professionals in radio drama play “pretend” all day long. Put talented examples of the two together and magic’s bound to happen.

Home Front starts on Monday 4 August at noon, and is on every weekday, with an omnibus on Fridays at 21:00; there’s also a podcast, and episodes will be available on BBC iPlayer for the next ten years. The quality shines thorough in the Home Front scripts I’ve seen and the samples I’ve heard. These will be great stories of life in Britain during World War One. Enjoy.

Have an A1 Day

Mrs S and I finished watching the final series of Breaking Bad the other evening having watched the whole shebang over the last few months. Gritty, gripping, and deserved of all the praise heaped upon it, this was an example of great writing and acting shining through. Let’s face it, the locations were no more than backdrops: the desert, the Whites’ house, a diner. Great stuff.

Favourites? Tough to choose but here goes (contains spoilers):

  • Favourite line: “Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family.”
  • Favourite character: Mike. Or Hank. (I never really warmed to Skyler, you know.) There were many great characters in BB but for me the performances of these two actors in these roles were wonderfully understated.
  • Favourite scene: when Walt is laughing hysterically under the floorboards when he finds out Skyler has given much of their money to Ted and the DEA are closing in. Or when Walt watches Jane die. These, along with many others, were beautifully set up, and demonstrative of the characters’ motivations, particularly Walt’s downward spiral.

Criticisms? There were a couple of episodes in season 5 in which there was an awful lot of whispering and breathy talk, and I couldn’t hear a word of it, frankly. (Maybe I should buy some better speakers.) There was also some backtracking, but I assume BB was made on a series-by-series basis so sometimes gaps had to be filled or things explained.

In the end everyone got what they deserved. But there’s a problem: what do Mrs S and I watch now, as Mad Men season 7’s not yet available? I’ve heard good things about The Sopranos, Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, Edge of Darkness – what do you suggest?

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FX: a blog in which I enthuse about BBC radio drama

I’ve been a fan of the BBC’s radio drama for a long time, but my enthusiasm has grown hugely in recent years. The output is diverse, and its quality outstanding. At the time of writing Radio 4 is broadcasting Dangerous Visions – a series of adaptations of classic science fiction works, including Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man from Brian Sibley, Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, adapted by Jonathan Holloway, and a 15-minute piece by Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Lauren Beukes1. Over the past few days I’ve also listened to several Afternoon Plays via the BBC’s iPlayer service, as well as dramatisations of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya by Christopher Hampton, and Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge by Mike Walker.

Radio 4’s Afternoon Play is a bit like Forrest Gump’s box o’ chocolates: unsurprisingly they’re often dramatic, but they can also be funny, unusual, and often moving. Sometimes the productions are straight-through dramas, such as Referee by Nick Perry, the story of corruption in the beautiful game, or Justin Hopper’s Dog Days – the poignant tale of a father and son relationship set against the backdrop of independent greyhound racing. Others, such as Paul Cornell’s Something in the Water, use flashbacks or other interesting techniques to move the story along or give insight into character motivation and history.

One such play – the first to really make me sit up and think I want to write this stuff2 – is Déja Vu by French writer and actress Alexis Zegerman. Produced by the BBC in conjunction with the French Arté Radio, this play – which you can still listen to here! – uses some unusual, atmospheric sound effects and features a French linguaphone with issues. Pitched as a love story (although I’m not sure it is), Déja Vu also tackles issues of prejudice and race, and there’s a fascinating awkwardness between the lines of the characters’ relationship. I love the quirkiness in the way this play tells its story.

Linguaphone: My heart might explode. (whispers) All over this room.

“There’s nothing to spy except spiders”

I’ve become a particular fan of Katie Hims’ work. Hims’ plays often have an historical setting or connection. There’s a simplicity and disarming emotional connection that makes Hims’ plays immediately accessible and engaging. You know the people in her plays; very often you are the people in her plays.

Lost Property is a beautifully constructed 3-part story covering 70 years, interweaving lives and crossing continents as circumstances affecting evacuees in World War Two have a huge knock-on effect. Listening to the Dead: Four Sons is the story of baker’s wife Clara – a medium who finds herself unravelling as World War One looms: she knows her boys will go off to fight, and sees the fate that awaits them. Even the Prime Minister comes to hear of Clara’s “gift”.

Clara: I wish we had girls.
Narrator: But they didn’t. They didn’t have girls. They had four sons. A goalkeeper, a poet, a heartbreaker and a saint.

Not all Hims’ plays are tear-jerkers, though: Samson and Delilah features a matter-of-fact angel from oop north played by Sean Baker, who bursts into flames in order to return to heaven after informing Tracey – a hairdresser who’s desperate for a baby – that she’s finally going to have one – and all of the infant’s special requirements.

“She smelled of sulphur”

Productions in the Afternoon Play slot are also often humorous, such as Jeff Young’s The Exuberant, a story about rival meteorite hunters seeking a recent arrival. The HighLites: Wash and Blow series by Steve Chambers and Phil Nodding, recently broadcast in the 15-minute slot during Woman’s Hour, is set aboard a 5-day cruise around the fjords. The play takes place in one of the cabins, with the hum of the ship setting the scene, along with occasional announcements over the tannoy by the vessel’s captain, or references to various locations and events elsewhere on board. This really does, if you’ll excuse the pun, highlight (ahem) the importance of dialogue in this medium, with some wonderful wordplay throughout.

Bev: You need to face up to the harsh realities of life instead of burying your head in an ostrich, Nigel. It’s not too late to save your marriage.
Nigel: It’s over, Bev.
Bev: It’s not over ’til the fat baby sings.

“If the story changed, who would they be?”

For me as a writer and a genuine enthusiast of BBC radio drama, it’s exciting that the corporation actively seeks new talent3. Radio 4 recently broadcast 10 new plays under the heading of Original British Dramatists. The stand-out piece for me was The Cloistered Soul by Rachel Connor.

I connected with the The Cloistered Soul on many levels, but the space, gentle pace, acting performances and subtlety of production were all absolutely wonderful. As the story progressed I found myself thinking how has she done that? regarding Connor’s script, given the huge amount of space the dialogue enjoyed without slowing down the story. I’ve downloaded the script to read through when I listen again.

Dramas that delight and surprise

I can’t emphasise how much I love this stuff. The output is varied and challenging and often daring, giving opportunities for writers to really stretch themselves and tell stories in interesting ways. You won’t find anything like this anywhere else. It’s unique to us, and we’re very lucky to have material of this standard available. You can listen when you’re working, driving, walking the dog or ironing, or simply having a lazy morning in bed. Try a few of these plays out, and you might just find yourself converted.

I did.

Martin
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(Click here for a follow-up post.)

Listen out for

  • The Dangerous Visions season is being broadcast as I write. If you can’t listen live catch up on iPlayer.

  • Coming soon is Home Front, an epic 4-year project covering stories of people in Britain during World War One. With Katie Hims on the writing team and Jessica Dromgoole at the helm, this promises to be great.

  • To keep up with what’s happening in the world of BBC radio drama, subscribe to the Drama of the Week newsletter. You can also download scripts from the Writersroom site – an invaluable resource for anyone with an interest in scriptwriting for any medium.

  • You can also download a wealth of material outside drama. Jarvis Cocker’s Wireless Nights podcasts – a look at the nocturnal goings on in and around the UK, delivered in his distinctive style – are absolutely wonderful.


  1. “It’s pronounced like ‘mucus’ ”, she once told me. 

  2. I have a script on submission with a producer at this very moment. Will it be good enough? Only time will tell. 
  3. I use the word “talent” here to avoid a repetition of “writer”, rather than to imply that I might have any talent! 
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